New visit to Napoleonic France
When it comes to Napoleon, we have a remarkable and extraordinary privilege: and this is that it's always possible, despite the huge number of books written about him, to take say something new about the man, the sovereign, his work and his reign. Thierry Lentz has given striking proof of this. The first two volumes of his Nouvelle Histoire du Premier Empire were based on an analysis of the system of power as one in perpetual motion, from conquest to collapse, within the space of a single decade. The third volume in this sequence takes a «transversal» approach, to use the author's word, more descriptive, more static – although that is perhaps a word which does not quite fit such a ‘devourer of time'.
Not only can you read this volume without having read the other two, you can also – and it's a quality – dip in and out, regardless of the rigorous structure starting from the person of the sovereign and going right down to the people ruled. At the apex of the pyramid stand the means of power: government, the Conseil d'Etat, the Chambres and, paradoxically, «the people » who owe their presence to the complex electoral system and the use of referenda or plebiscites. Whilst the Empire was not a military dictatorship, the people remain both «everywhere and nowhere ». Nowhere, in terms of everyday life, as the fundamental second and third parts show, dealing as they do with the ubiquitous authority of the State and the order imposed on the society structured to receive that order. Take the administrative pyramid, the court etiquette, the «gendarme religions», the civil code, the control of the press and the dirigisme in foreign relations and economics, (to mention but a few), nothing escaped the gaze of the «Emperor-manager».
What was the final aim of this implacable organisation – and you might be forgiven for thinking that the organisation was simply the end in itself? French society. And the author illustrates that society not only within France's border but also outside in the Europe subjected to his ‘notorious' system, ably making reference to the two previous volumes.
Regardless how ‘up' you are in Napoleonic history, this imperial encyclopaedia has something for everyone, whether clear description or specific details. Like his preceding book, this one provides masterful syntheses derived from the reading of a vast number of wide-ranging documents. As before, the writing is clear, to the point and informative. You could say that this was teaching at its very best.
In the first chapters of the first volume, Thierry Lentz provided the reader with the key to understanding the ‘clockwork' mechanism of imperial power. Here the author takes the workings of the Napoleonic state to pieces and explains them with remarkable skill. It is hard not to be seduced by this rigorous and firm (Napoleonic?) guide. But better still, the memory of this intelligence and the wealth of detail will surely encourage others to go further.
The Nouvelle Histoire series
I Napoléon et la conquête de l'Europe (1804-1810)
II L'Effondrement du système napoléonien (1810-1815)
III La France et l'Europe de Napoléon (1804-1814)
IV Les Cent-Jours (1815)
The Nouvelle Histoire series follows Le Grand Consulat, a study of the Consulate period, published by Fayard in 1999. Thierry Lentz was awarded the 1997 Fondation Napoléon history prize for a work on the First Empire.
Nouvelle histoire du Premier Empire, volume III: La France et l’Europe de Napoléon 1804-1814) (in French)
New visit to Napoleonic France
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- Paris: Fayard
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